Anyone with a chronic disease needs to maintain the highest level of health possible—and with the fatigue, steroid therapy and depression that characterize MS, an unhealthy weight gain is easy with this disease.
It’s a vicious cycle: not only can MS symptoms invite unwanted pounds, but overeating can intensify the symptoms or conditions of MS, including stress on joints, pressure sores, fatigue, and overworking the heart and lungs.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society advises that people with MS who need to lose weight, should set realistic goals so they don’t give up along the way. A goal of 10 percent of your current body weight is reasonable. They offer these tips:
- Don’t diet. Instead of thinking of your eating plan as a short-term change, make a plan to eat healthier for life.
- Change one meal at a time. Eat a healthy breakfast, then a healthy lunch and dinner. Incorporate protein into your meals, try to avoid refined carbohydrates (such as white bread and pasta) and get most of your carbs from vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Watch your portions.
- Snack. When you feel hungry between meals, don’t starve yourself until mealtime—that’s a recipe for binging at the next meal. Grab a healthy snack: raw unsalted nuts, low-fat yogurt, string cheese, whole-grain crackers, fresh fruit.
- Focus on your food. Try not to read or watch TV while you eat. Instead, think about the food and eat sensually—that is, use your senses of taste, feel, sight and smell—to appreciate the food as you eat. That’s called “mindful eating,” the practice of being mindful of every aspect of the act.
- Follow your cravings. If you regularly crave chocolate, eat a bit of dark chocolate for dessert. Don’t deny yourself the foods you love, just eat them in smaller amounts.
- Talk with your doctor about your nutritional supplements. Even a supplement generally considered healthy such as fish oil (which contains omega-3 fatty acids) can pose risks: while research has shown that it slows the progression of disabilities, it is possible that it interferes with some drugs commonly taken by MS patients, such as Copaxone, Avonex, Betaseron and Rebif. If you decide to take fish oil supplements, ask your doctor to check for any medical issues.
If you’re trying to lose weight and build strength and wellness, it’s also important that you keep moving. A 1996 study at the University of Utah was first to show how exercise helps people with MS: subjects had better bladder and bowel function, less fatigue and depression, they socialized more and they felt more positive. Not exercising can bring on weak muscles, shallow breathing and lower bone density.
Try to exercise every day. Even people who live in a wheelchair can exercise every day; the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD) provides a list of exercise videos for people with disabilities on its website.
Aerobic exercise isn’t the only move that can help MS patients. Yoga, which emphasizes relaxation, breathing, stretching and focused movements, helps MS patients stay limber and positive. If you can’t attend a class, you can purchase a video and practice yoga at home.
Tai chi, a Chinese martial art that’s even more gentle than many forms of yoga, also has proven to help people with better balance, lower blood pressure and enhanced cardiovascular health. The studies did not involve MS patients, but the MS Society recommends trying it nevertheless.
Probably the healthiest choice any MS patient can make, however, is to make connections—with yourself and with others. A rewarding and simple first step is to begin a daily meditation practice. In 2010, a University of Montreal study found that meditation alleviates pain: the brain receives a “pain signal” but the individual doesn’t actually feel pain.
It also can be immensely helpful to share stories, advice and questions with other people diagnosed with MS. A few suggestions:
- Daily Strength is an online forum for exchanging MS information, asking questions about your condition and making friends.
- MS World is the message and chat board for the National MS Society. The site includes news, research, alerts of upcoming clinical trials, and a message board for teens.
- The Multiple Sclerosis Association of America’s services include MS educational videos, networking for peer support, and a Reassurance Call program to keep patients’ isolation at bay. MSAA also sponsors a lending library; they loan a book or DVD for 45 days and cover all mailing costs.
- For those who would rather meet other MS patients in person, the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation hosts gatherings across the country. You’ll see a map of the U.S. on the home page; click on the state where you live and a list of meetings will appear, with contact information and meeting times.
- The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation also offers peer counseling through its program, “We Care, We Call.” Patients receive regularly scheduled calls from other MS patients at whatever frequency you wish. If you’re interested, email your request or call the Foundation’s helpline at 888-MS-FOCUS (888-673-6287).
- The MSActivesource programs offer a range of support and personalized assistance for people living with MS. Patients are able to access a mentor, receive at-home injection training and MS counseling, and gain financial assistance with therapy.